Mastering Hebrew: Tips and Resources for Anglos in Israel
Let’s not sugarcoat it – learning Hebrew is no easy task. In fact, many English speakers consider it one of the most challenging languages to master, surpassed only by notoriously complex languages like Arabic and Mandarin. So, it’s no wonder why many Anglos planning to move to Israel find learning Hebrew the most daunting task in their journey of assimilating into Israeli culture.
But there’s no need to worry.
Sure, learning Hebrew will take substantial time, effort, and perseverance. But it will also allow you the incredible opportunity to speak one of the oldest (and most beautiful) languages in the world. With it, you can build an incredible personal and professional life for yourself.
Here is a guide on mastering Hebrew to make this language less intimidating and show you that perfecting it is possible with the right approach. Read it carefully, and you’ll know precisely where to start, what to pay attention to, and how to take your language learning to the next level.
Understanding the Importance of Learning Hebrew
Learning the native language of the country you’re moving to is arguably one of the most crucial tasks for having a successful expatriate experience. It helps you integrate into the local community, establish meaningful connections with people around you, and understand the culture on a deeper level. Of course, it also helps you navigate the business world more readily, opening doors to new career opportunities in the country.
But the importance of learning Hebrew to live in Israel goes far beyond these benefits.
Hebrew is the foundation of Jewish identity, essentially keeping the Jewish nation together. As such, this ancient language serves as a bridge between the past and the present. It connects expats with Israel’s rich history, making their lives in the country more profound and meaningful.
Of course, this doesn’t mean learning Hebrew to move to Israel doesn’t come with some “practical” benefits. Anglos moving to Israel will quickly discover that English won’t take them far in the country. For instance, even something as elementary as setting up telecom services can be a Herculean task for non-Hebrew speakers, as most telecom providers don’t offer their services in English.
Knowing just the basics can help you overcome the language barriers in Israel, allowing you a smoother transition to your new life.
But how should you get started with Hebrew?
The truth is, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. It all depends on your language skills, learning preferences, and knowledge of Hebrew. If you’re entirely unfamiliar with Hebrew, you might benefit from starting slow.
Don’t jump into the alphabet and grammar straight away. Instead, start by exposing yourself to spoken Hebrew – listen to Israeli music or watch YouTube videos. This will give you a feel for how the language sounds and lay a foundation for your learning journey.
Learning the Hebrew Alphabet: Aleph to Tav
The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. For an Anglo, this is certainly good news, as there are fewer letters to learn than in English. But that is probably the last good news related to this alphabet, especially compared to English.
Hebrew doesn’t use Latin letters. It uses an entirely different script (abjad), has five letters with different forms, and is written right to left. In other words, it’s as different from English as it gets.
However, learning the Hebrew alphabet is a fundamental step in mastering the language. Memorizing the 22 letters can be done relatively quickly. Once you do that, all that’s left is to practice. You can try the following:
- Reading Hebrew newspapers
- Transliterating English sentences
- Copying Hebrew texts
And don’t forget to use every opportunity to write! You’ll quickly realize that Hebrew is governed by patterns that make navigating it much easier. The earlier you expose yourself to these patterns, the faster you’ll master Hebrew pronunciation.
Start by pronouncing individual Hebrew letters in a word and work toward reading and writing simple words and phrases.
Some common Hebrew phrases you can use for practice (and your daily life) include the following:
|Good morning.||בוקר טוב.||Boker tov.|
|Good evening.||ערב טוב.||Erev tov.|
|Good night.||לילה טוב.||Laila tov.|
|Thank you very much.||תודה רבה.||Toda raba.|
|You’re welcome.||על לא דבר.||Al lo davar.|
|Nice to meet you.||נעים מאוד.||Naim meod.|
|What’s your name?||מה שמך?||Ma shimkha?|
|My name is…||שמי...||Shmi…|
|How old are you?||בן כמה אתה?||Ben kama ata?|
|I’m… years old.||אני בן...||Ani ben…|
Choosing the right learning approach is crucial once it’s time to venture into more advanced Hebrew learning. Consider your goals, self-discipline, and the time you can commit to this endeavor. This will help you decide whether you can take on this task yourself or whether you’ll need some help.
Language Schools vs. Self-Study: Pros and Cons
Israel is exceptionally welcoming to expats and people making Aliyah. As part of this effort to attract newcomers and integrate them effortlessly, the country offers numerous ways to learn Hebrew. Ulpans are arguably the most known institutions for learning Hebrew, offering intensive language study programs. Ulpans are virtually everywhere in Israel, so chances are you’ll have at least one close to your residence.
But are language schools the best way to learn Hebrew?
Again, there’s no yes or no answer to this question. It all depends on your specific circumstances.
Learning Hebrew in language schools is arguably the most efficient way to master this language. It gives you access to language experts who can guide you in the right direction and correct any mistakes. It also allows you to interact with other language learners and use Hebrew in practice.
However, this method is also costly and offers little flexibility (both in terms of time and learning preferences). Plus, not everyone can endure the rigorous tempo of Israeli ulpans.
With self-study, there’s no stress, tight schedules, and the pressure to keep up with the class. But there’s also no structure, direct guidance, or immediate speaking practice. In other words, this approach isn’t for you if you don’t have self-discipline. If, however, you do, you’ll find this approach much more versatile and, of course, affordable.
Plus, in the age of the internet, you aren’t really learning the language on your own. Many online Hebrew courses and language apps can help you along the way. These allow you to create a hybrid learning approach, combining the flexibility of self-study with the structure of language schools.
Another approach to learning Hebrew that can eliminate some of the downsides of language schools is hiring a tutor. This way, you have direct guidance and an opportunity to use the language in practice, but there’s no pressure and much more flexibility. Though this is the most expensive approach, it’s undoubtedly worth it for those who can afford it.
But whatever learning approach you choose, one thing’s for sure. Living in Israel gives you a massive advantage over other Hebrew learners. After all, no school, course, or app can rival immersing yourself in the language daily.
Living in Israel: The Ultimate Immersion Experience
When it comes to learning new languages, immersion reigns supreme. This approach forces you to use the language daily, encouraging you to pick it up much faster.
Even listening to the language daily (i.e., learning it passively) will do wonders for your progress, allowing you to master basic conversational Hebrew in a shorter period. Under regular circumstances, this takes some 550 hours.
To further speed up this process, consider joining Hebrew language exchange groups or partners on websites like Tandem or Meetup. Or, if you’re already in Israel, there’s no need to look online. Look around you, in your community, and find natives willing to speak Hebrew with you.
Building a Strong Vocabulary
A British linguist, David Wilkins, said, “Without grammar, little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.”
This quote perfectly captures the importance of vocabulary on your way to language competency. However, learning vocabulary is relatively easy. Just google “Hebrew vocabulary,” and you’ll find lists upon lists of useful words with English transliteration.
Grammar is where it gets a bit trickier. And without it, you won’t know how to organize the words you’ve learned in logical ways.
The word “logical” is used quite deliberately, as Hebrew grammar is logical and orderly. Here are some more characteristics of Hebrew grammar to get you started:
- Hebrew is both a synthetic and analytic language. This means it relies both on word building and word order to indicate meaning and relationships.
- There’s a grammatical gender in Hebrew, and nouns, verbs, and adjectives all adhere to it.
- The basic word order is similar to English.
- There are only three main tenses (simple present, past, and future).
As you start piecing words together in sentences, you can practice everyday conversations by watching online videos and reading dialogs. The more you learn, the more advanced learning techniques you’ll be able to use. Some of them include the following:
- Journaling in Hebrew
- Shadowing (repeating what a native speaker says)
- Advanced grammar study
Reading Hebrew: Newspapers, Books, and Online Resources
Mastering reading Hebrew can be quite challenging due to all the differences between Hebrew and English. So, it’s important to start slow and avoid overwhelming yourself.
Once you learn the Hebrew alphabet, start reading Hebrew newspapers like the Bereshit, which features short articles in Hebrew, or the Jerusalem Post’s Ivrit magazine. As you grow more confident, you can start exploring online resources in Hebrew. Of course, the end goal is to be able to read books in Hebrew.
But there’s no need to hurry.
In the beginning, you can also watch Israeli TV shows (e.g., “Ktzarim,” “Eretz Nehederet,” “Fauda”) and movies (e.g., “Mivtza Savta,” “Mr.Gaga”) to help further immerse you into the language and Israeli culture. Don’t forget to add Hebrew subtitles to help you recognize words you’ve learned and pick up on grammar structures.
This type of content, as well as online reading materials, can also help you navigate cultural sensitivities in Israel. So, besides learning Hebrew, you’ll also learn what to say and what not to say using this language.
Understanding Cultural Nuances in Hebrew Communication
To effectively communicate with Hebrew-speaking individuals and build positive relationships with native speakers, you must also understand the cultural nuances of the communication in this language.
Some important aspects of communication to remember are as follows:
- Hebrew is quite a direct language and often does away with the niceties. For instance, you wouldn’t say, “Would it be possible to get a glass of water?” Instead, you’d say, “I want a glass of water.”
- Humor is a prominent part of Hebrew communication, so don’t be afraid to throw in an anecdote or two.
- Hebrew emphasizes respecting elders, so make sure to use formal titles when speaking to them.
- Mindfulness when discussing politics and religion is always encouraged.
Navigating these nuances on top of learning such a complex language can be challenging, but it’s doable. Listening to how native speakers communicate can help you overcome these challenges much quicker.
Common Pitfalls in Learning Hebrew
Given how complex and different from English Hebrew is, it’s perfectly understandable for Anglos to get discouraged at one point or another. There’s always something new when learning this language, which can get overwhelming.
Here are some tips to help you stay motivated and avoid the common pitfalls in learning Hebrew:
- Remind yourself of why you’re learning the language and the benefits this knowledge will bring.
- Break your learning objectives into smaller, manageable tasks to keep you feeling accomplished.
- Find like-minded Hebrew learners in your environment and support each other on your language-learning journey.
- Treat yourself when achieving important milestones, like ordering in a restaurant by yourself. (The food can double as a treat!)
- Remember to take breaks to prevent burnout.
- Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to seek help when you get stuck on a specific language problem.
- Diversify your resources to keep the learning fun and engaging.
Top Hebrew Language Books and Courses
The great thing about learning Hebrew in the digital age is that you have numerous resources at your disposal. No matter what your budget is and how flexible you are time-wise, you’ll find the perfect course for your needs.
Here are some of the best online Hebrew learning platforms to check out:
- Udemy. Udemy offers over 100 Hebrew courses, from general to ultra-specific. This platform is the best choice for learners who prefer studying at their own pace.
- HebrewPod 101. This platform offers podcast-style conversations between native speakers that can help you master the intricacies of Hebrew communication.
- My Jewish Learning. This platform aims to educate people about Jewish life, culture, and religion. So, it’s no wonder it also offers excellent Hebrew courses. If you’re just starting, consider the Introduction to Hebrew with Rabbi Peretz Rodman. If you want something more specific, go for Hebrew Language for the High Holidays.
- Easy Lean Hebrew. This platform is perfect for learners looking to focus on reading.
Numerous apps can help you stay on top of your language practice. Some top choices include the Pimsleur app (ideal for beginners) and Mondly (perfect for learners seeking a more interactive approach to learning).
If, however, you’re old school and prefer learning in person, you’ll still be spoilt for choice. There are numerous in-person classes throughout Israel and innumerable ways to apply. Do it directly, through a synagogue or a Jewish community center; whatever works the best.
But whichever course(s) you choose, remember one thing – the more you study between the lessons, the faster you’ll master this beautiful language. So, besides taking courses, consider reading books to learn Hebrew. Here are some of our top choices:
- “The Routledge Introductory Course in Modern Hebrew” (Giore Etzion)
- “Hebrew for Beginners: A 10-Week Self-Study Program” (Ahmet Murat Taşer)
- “Hebrew Workbook for Beginners: Hebrew Alphabet for Beginners Establishing the Basis to Learn Hebrew Language Workbook” (Inbal Amit)
- “1000 Hebrew Sentences: Dual Language Hebrew-English, Interlinear & Parallel Text” (Aron Levin)
For more excellent language resources in Israel, read the list compiled by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an incredible organization dedicated to facilitating Aliyah.
Using Hebrew in Everyday Situations
As in any life situation, there aren’t any rules when it comes to important milestones. What matters to you might be insignificant to another Hebrew learner. But what the milestone is isn’t important. The only thing that matters is to recognize that milestone and celebrate it accordingly.
For instance, an important milestone can be constructing your first coherent sentence in Hebrew or figuring out an unknown word from context. It can even be the first time you catch yourself singing along to a Hebrew song and truly understanding the meaning of every word.
In everyday life, a milestone can be every situation when you manage to communicate a need or a want without relying on a native speaker. You’ll definitely never forget the first time a native speaker talked to you freely in Hebrew as if they would to a fellow native. This will give you the confidence to continue learning and improving. Before you know it, you’ll be inserting Hebrew idioms into conversation with ease.
Celebrating Your Progress in Learning Hebrew
While it’s important to award yourself for every milestone, it’s also crucial to look at the big picture. Learning Hebrew won’t always be easy and fun, and that’s perfectly fine. As long as you focus on the lifelong benefits of speaking Hebrew, you’ll stay motivated and committed throughout this journey, even during the challenging moments.
Some of these benefits include:
- Uncovering a treasure trove of historical, philosophical, and poetic wisdom stretching back millennia
- Opening up a world of possibilities for employment and business
- Providing unparalleled intellectual stimulation
Though these benefits sound impressive, remember to take it one step at a time. Don’t rush or push yourself too hard, and you’ll eventually master this beautiful language without resenting the journey. And remember – until you do this, it’s perfectly fine to rely on English. No one expects you to start speaking Hebrew fluently as soon as you land in Israel, so embrace the learning process at your own pace.
An Anglo Friend in a Hebrew World
If there’s ever a time you’ll need the comfort and familiarity of your native language, it’s when you just arrive in Israel and need to set up your life there. Use TCS Telecom to set up telecom services in English and avoid worrying about making costly mistakes by attempting to do so in Hebrew.